NRC has dominated public debates, TV news flashes, chai-sutta conversations, newspaper headlines, and liberal protests in the country for more than two years now. The National Register of Citizens, which can be seen as a citizenship test for the people living in Assam would entail the name of everyone who is a legal and genuine citizen of Assam, and thus India. A huge controversy surrounds this topic but the article would stay away from all the heated arguments and delve into the history of Assam which has made this small northeast state the center of a debate on immigration and nationality.
Immigration in Colonial India: The location and climate of Assam made it a monetary and holiday paradise for the British. They commercialized the tea plantations in the region and made a fortune out of the same. British people needed laborers to work in their highly profitable tea business, and just like every time, they forced people from other regions, especially Bengal to migrate and work in their tea plantations in Assam. Moreover, people of Bengal needed work and tea plantations under the British seemed a prospective option. These migrations were the earliest changes in the demography of Assam which essentially consisted of indigenous tribes and groups. Later, the British policy of ‘Divide and Rule’ manifested itself in the form of the partition of Bengal in 1905 where Bengal was divorced on communal lines. Muslim Bengalis were encouraged to migrate to Assam as it was merged with the Muslim-dominated East province.
The scourges of Partition: During the partition in 1947, many Hindu Bengalis migrated to Assam after the creation of East Pakistan( Bangladesh), especially in the Barak valley region. Communal riots and bloodshed were rampant and the victims of Partition-struggle were given refuge in parts of Assam and West Bengal.
An interesting case which reflects the state of religion politics during this time is the story of the Sylhet district. In the 1940s, Political parties in Assam were concerned about the multilingual and multicultural demography of the state. There were more Bengali-speaking individuals in Assam than Assamese-speaking. All of this called for a wave in Assam for promoting and creating a province that is organized for the Assamese. While partition, politicians, and activists in Assam were against the inclusion of Sylhet and Cachar provinces in India, as they had a majority of Muslim and Bengali-speaking population. Ultimately, they were able to fulfill their cause as Sylhet ended up being added to East-Pakistan. But, this led to yet another complication as just after Partition large numbers of Hindu Bengalis from Sylhet and other parts of Bangladesh started to migrate across the border back to Assam. And what the politicians saw as a cause for cultural homogeneity now became a question of immigration and foreigners.
After partition, it was requested by the government of Assam to distribute and allocate the hordes of refugees that cramped up the state to other regions, but no heed was paid. The first National Register of Citizens was compiled in 1951 after the Census was completed that year to identify the genuine Assamese population so that the refugees could be redistributed, but there were no resources and machinery to implement the same. Thus the first attempt to check immigration in Assam was flunked.
Refugees of war or immigrants?: The inrush of alleged Illegal immigrants started in the 1960s and continued till the late 1970s, which was the third wave of immigration into the state. It was during East Pakistan’s ongoing liberation war against Pakistan. This was a disturbing time for Bangladeshis, marked by agitations, protests, killings and a hostile environment in their economically weak and socially underdeveloped country. Moreover, border surveillance was never strengthened in Assam and so it was very easy for Bangladeshis to cross the border without documentation and legal obligations, in pursuit of a better life in a more stable and culturally similar country. To their advantage, the Bengali speaking population in the state was already high, so it was difficult to differentiate them from the locals. But migration from Bangladesh continued even after the civil war as people living at the border were suffering from the problem of floods and malnourished economy and saw the grass greener on the other side.
The Assam Accord: The immigration situation was never checked until the 1980s but was rather encouraged for political gains. This problem of illegal or undocumented migration and foreigners now took center stage in Assam when agitators in Assam were fed up with the tyrannical rule from Delhi. Agitations even led violence sometimes with the boycotting of Bengali people in the Silchar district. People in Assam and many in the rest of India observed that the Congress government was favoring illegal immigration in the state to spur up its votes. These people who had come from Bangladesh to Assam were seen as scavengers, feeding upon the resources of the state, disturbing it’s cultural and ethnic demography and taking away what rightly belonged to the people of Assam.
A wide-scale agitation was carried out by All Assam Student Union (AASU) for six years which ultimately led to the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985. The Accords were a settlement between the AASU and the Central government led by Rajiv Gandhi to identify and deport foreigners and delete their names from the electoral rolls. Even after widespread protests and signing of the accord, no stringent steps were taken by governments till now. It took 33 years for this crucial agreement to finally fall into place in the form of updating the NRC. The state has been lying in limbo since 1985 and is bearing the ramifications of approximately 70 years of unchecked immigration. Therefore, the people living in Assam now have to prove that they or their family had been living in Assam before 24 March 1971, and have not entered India after or during the 1971 war.
The government of Bangladesh has never accepted that its citizens had been illegally migrating into India for years. Therefore even if the NRC is able to detect foreigners, deportation or resettlement still remains a big question before the government. The final list is out and about 40 lakh people find their names missing. For them, the future is full of uncertainty and a series of court battles trying to prove their citizenship.